The Lowell Sun: Eldridge: Evergreen Solar must stop the noise

By Mary E. Arata

Sen. Jamie Eldridge is calling on the Devens Enterprise Commission and state Department of Environmental Protection to compel Evergreen Solar to respond to months of persistent, documented noise complaints.

“I cannot understand how a company like Evergreen Solar, which is probably one of the most technologically advanced companies in the world, could not figure out how to prevent noise pollution from affecting surrounding communities,” the Acton Democrat said.

Eldridge and Rep. Jennifer Benson, D-Lunenburg, toured the solar-panel manufacturing plant Tuesday as part of a hastily called Devens Enterprise Commission-sponsored “meeting” run entirely by — and at the request of — Evergreen officials.

The company’s Devens manufacturing plant operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Neighbors in Harvard, part of both lawmakers’ districts, are up in arms.

“The Devens Enterprise Commission (DEC) and the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) have to do everything possible to make Evergreen Solar be in compliance immediately,” said Eldridge.

Evergreen Solar officials launched into a PowerPoint presentation they have used at recent public hearings, granted a guided tour of the roof and rear of the plant, and fielded questions regarding the machinery involved in the manufacture of solar panels. Two DEP officials were on hand but issued no public statements regarding the noise issue.

The DEC had a public hearing on the Barnum Road business June 30, where neighbors again rallied to air complaints after months of noise flowing from the rear of the plant.

“I’m requesting more information from Evergreen Solar and the DEC about ramping down their facility,” said Eldridge, who joined Benson to meet informally with four Harvard neighbors shortly after Tuesday’s plant tour.

“I visited some of the residents, and it’s very clear that the health of these residents has declined significantly,” said Eldridge. “Also, their businesses have been negatively affected, and Evergreen Solar needs to take steps to stop these negative effects.”

The plant is awaiting a permanent occupancy permit. The current temporary occupancy permit lapses July 15. At its meeting yesterday, DEC — Devens’ one-stop permitting board — agreed to put off a decision on this matter until Tuesday, July 14, at 6:45 p.m., a day short of the deadline.

Director Peter Lowett listed the paperwork DEC expects to have in hand by then. Some of it has been received, he said, including letters from Evergreen and Donroven Farm co-owner Jay Wallace, on behalf of residents in the noise-affected Harvard neighborhood across the tracks from the plant. Members need time to review that data, he said.

The list of outstanding items includes a report from a mechanical engineer hired by DEC to assess Evergreen’s capability to “ramp down” operations at night; a consultant’s evaluation on whether the plant was built to specs, particularly noise attenuation equipment; dateline for receipt of parts needed to fix identified problems; and an affidavit from Evergreen, stating its case for full occupancy permit.

DEC member Armen Demerjian on Wednesday denied a Boston Herald report that the DEC has moved to impose $1,000-per-week fines and would withhold the granting of a permanent occupancy permit until the noise abates.

It’s a delicate position for the state to be in, since it is a major player in the funding for the plant’s construction. The Herald reported that the $200 million plant received about $40 million in state subsidies, including $23 million in state grants, $17.5 million in low-interest loans and a low-cost, 30-year lease of the state-owned property on Barnum Road.

The company insists it’s getting a handle on the noise through the installation of several silencing devices for its external machinery located on the roof and in the rear of the plant. The stated goal is to not only meet but beat the maximum decibel levels allowed at their lot line.

The Harvard Board of Selectmen recently voted to ask the DEC to shut down the solar panel manufacturer’s round-the-clock operations because of the noise. Harvard Selectmen Chairman Ron Ricci and Selectman Tim Clark attended Tuesday’s tour and meeting.

Evergreen Vice President Rodolpho Archbold said it is not possible to shut down the plant overnight. He said it would take about 20 hours daily to cool down critical machinery — from 1,400 to 300 degrees — for each shutdown, and require the need to “evacuate” chemicals from the plant into either the Devens’ wastewater system or to be trucked off site.

“It would leave just four to five hours of operation a day,” he said.

Nashoba Publications staffer M.E. Jones contributed to this report.

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